Freshman tour of JSU

Incoming freshman take a campus tour Thursday afternoon. JSU is getting more competition for students from Georgia. State colleges in Georgia are welcoming many Alabama students at the same tuition rate they charge residents of the Peach State. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star) 

JACKSONVILLE — Becky Wolf considered starting her college career in Georgia this fall, but decided Jacksonville State University was the better fit.

“I like the size of the campus and how friendly everyone is,” Wolf said.

Still, had the Helena, Ala., resident lived a little farther east, she might have picked Valdosta State University instead. The Georgia college offers its cheaper tuition rates to Alabamians that are usually reserved for in-state students. With college costs comparable to what they’d pay in Alabama, it was an option the family seriously considered, said Kristy Wolf, Becky’s mother.

“But Valdosta is way down there ... she was not interested in going out that far,” Kristy Wolf said of her daughter.

Over the last two years, Georgia has let more of its universities offer in-state tuition to Alabama residents to bolster enrollment and revenue. The move has meant greater competition with Alabama universities, particularly JSU, which already fights for students near the Georgia line and depends mainly on tuition to stay solvent.

“Competition for enrollment is at an all-extreme high, more than ever,” said Don Killingsworth, JSU’s director of university government relations. “The more students you have, the more tuition you have.”

Currently, 13 Georgia universities offer in-state tuition to Alabama residents. The University of West Georgia, less than an hour’s drive from JSU, is the most recent addition — offering in-state tuition to Alabamians this year.

The University System of Georgia Board of Regents in 2015 approved a pilot program to let a handful of universities try to attract Alabama residents with in-state tuition, said Joyce Jones, vice chancellor for student affairs.

“A review of applicants suggested that we could indeed increase enrollment from bordering states, including Alabama,” Jones said.

According to the board’s 2015 meeting minutes, the program started because of enrollment declines and population changes. Also, many Georgia institutions had excess housing and facility capacity.

“From a budget standpoint, higher enrollment means more tuition to help cover the costs of providing public higher education,” the minutes read.

Justin Barlow, director of admissions at UWG, said offering in-state tuition to Alabama residents made sense, given the university’s available capacity and its proximity to the state.

“Implementation of the border residents tuition waiver provides the opportunity for UWG to expand access to additional students,” Barlow wrote in an email to The Star.

According to UWG, which had 13,520 students last year, in-state tuition there will cost $2,132 per semester for undergraduates starting this fall. The tuition doesn’t include room and board or other fees.

Meanwhile JSU, which had 8,567 students last year, and will charge undergraduates $3,888 for in-state tuition starting this fall.

“Obviously, competition is always a relevant factor and we are aware of it,” Emily Messer, JSU associate vice president of enrollment management, said of Georgia’s efforts to attract students from Alabama. “There are ways we are challenging that.”

Messer said that to combat Georgia, JSU is aggressively recruiting in the 10 Georgia counties where it can offer in-state tuition. Alabama universities are allowed to offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students, but only if those students live within 50 miles of their campuses.

“We’re letting them know about the possibility that they can get in-state tuition here and what we have to offer,” Messer said of potential Georgia students.

Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission of Higher Education, said that, like Georgia, Alabama universities are trying to raise enrollment because the state offers them less money than in years past.

At least 60 percent of JSU’s budget is supported by tuition.

But losing students to Georgia is about more than a battle for money, Purcell said.

“Students tend to want to work in the states where they graduated from,” he said. “So you want to keep there from being a brain drain so you can make sure your state has the skills and talent for businesses.”

However, Purcell said, there has been no push in the state to attract more out-of-state students as Georgia has. Instead, Alabama wants to keep more of its residents from leaving, he said.

“We want to make sure the state provides students with quality education here,” he said.

Purcell said Alabama could benefit from more scholarship offerings like what is available in Georgia, where a state lottery helps cover tuition for some residents.

“We haven’t done a lot of merit- or need-based scholarships, but as competition heats up, we may see more interest in that,” he said.

Messer said another way JSU is trying to attract more students is by offering what other universities don’t have, like more online classes and certain degrees.

“We’re constantly re-evaluating our programs as a way to increase enrollment,” she said.

Garrett Fairley of Glencoe lives close to Georgia, but enrolled at JSU for the fall because of its emergency management degree program.

“I looked at a lot of universities and JSU was the only one that offered a degree in emergency management,” Fairley said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.